Tag Archives: Ian McEwan

Books Read in 2013

Each year, I set a goal to read 25 books. Reading widely across all genres, including non-fiction work, is essential for fiction writers. This year, I fell short of 25 books. I also wanted to read more contemporary best-sellers, but I didn’t accomplish that, either. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the books I did read. Some were written by friends and colleagues, while others were penned by best-selling authors. The diversity of voices and stories have enriched my writing and I thank all of the authors on this list.

Fiction

The Lightning Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie
Waiting, by Ha Jin
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan
Third Willow, by Lenore Skomal
The Fault in our Stars, by John Green
Dune, by Frank Herbert
Looking for Alaska, by John Green
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
News From Heaven, by Jennifer Haigh
Dented Cans, by Heather Walsh
Almost Armaggedon, by Jamie Beckett
Mystic River, by Dennis Lehane
The Night Eternal, by Chuck Hogan and Guillermo DelToro
Dear Life, by Alice Munro
Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe


Non-fiction

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story, by KM Weiland
Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, by Donald Maas
Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Sciences to Hook the Reader from the Very First Sentence, by Lisa Cron
Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

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Book Review: “Sweet Tooth,” by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan’s “Sweet Tooth” is ostensibly a spy novel, but this tale centers not on highly sensitive state secrets, but on the fuzzy fault line between fiction and reality. The protagonist, Serena Frome, fresh out of college in 1972, finds herself recruited for MI5, the British spy agency, by Tony Canning, a professor and former spy operative she met through a lover while she was a student at Cambridge. Canning, who is married, becomes her lover and sponsors her for an entry-level job at M15, before abruptly breaking off the affair.

Serena’s first assignment is to participate in an operation called Sweet Tooth, which aims to use a bogus foundation to fund the work of writers who have shown an anti-communist and pro-capitalist bent in their writings. She is assigned to cultivate Tom Haley, a promising young writer. Critics have pointed out that Haley seems to be an alter ego for McEwan. They both earned degrees in English at the University of Sussex. The early work of both writers was dark and twisted. Both writers worked with Tom Maschler as their editor and knew the author Martin Amis, who makes a cameo appearance.

In the spy game, agents lead a double life. The persona they show when they are digging for information is a fiction. Similarly, Serena engages in a risky pursuit, falling in love with Tom Haley. They quickly fall into a passionate affair, but Serena cannot bring herself to tell her lover she is a spy. As her love for Tom grows, Serena is caught in an impossible dilemma: the emotions she feels for Tom are authentic, but based on a fraud she has perpetrated on him.

There is a needy, desperate quality to Serena that makes her suspect in the reader’s eyes. By her own admission, she was a mediocre student majoring in math at Cambridge, where she came to realize her true passion was literature. Her taste in books, however, is questionable as at one point she states that “Valley of the Dolls” is as good as anything Jane Austen ever wrote. Her first love turns out to be a homosexual and her second love, Canning, is an older, married man. She develops a brief crush on an MI5 agent with the memorable name, Maximillen Greatorex, a socially awkward chap who eventually plays a pivotal part in the story.

McEwan plays Senera’s dilemma between her professional obligations and deepening love for Haley for all it’s worth. Though he reveals the outcome on the first page of the story, the unraveling of Serena’s double life unfolds through a series of cleverly plotted events that leave the reader surprised.

A major theme here is the line between life and art. Serena prefers novels with realistic plots and characters to loftier, high-minded literature. She states early on, “I believe that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever is made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for double agents.”

In light of the fate that would befall poor Serena, her words foreshadowed a cruel irony.

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Help! I’m Running Out of Scenes

National Novel Writing Month is at the halfway point. I’m closing in on 30,000 words. I’m nearly 5,000 words ahead of where I should be. So why am I so worried?

I’m running out of scenes. My story is headed rapidly toward its climax and I still have 20,000 words left. I vowed from the beginning I would not concoct scenes strictly to “pad” my word count. That is, I would not create meaningless scenes just so I could reach 50,000 words. I’m sticking to that promise, but I find myself wracking my brain to come up with realistic scenes that fit into the narrative. I’ve come up with a few good ones that still need to be developed.

My dilemma got me thinking of this question: How many scenes does it take to finish a novel? A quick research project on the Internet yielded a lot of theories but no clear answers. Randy Ingermanson, who maintains the site, http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/, wrote a thoughtful post about scenes. Here’s what Randy wrote in part: “There aren’t any rules on the scene length, as long as the story works. You should write the scenes to the right length for your story.

“I would guess that most novels have anywhere from 50 to 200 scenes. It might be an interesting exercise to go through some of your favorite novels and count the number of scenes. But a far more interesting exercise is to look at individual scenes and ask why the author wrote it that particular length. Did she put in too much or too little. How would you have written the scene differently,” he wrote.

Building on Randy’s suggestion, watch your favorite sitcoms or TV dramas and count the number of scenes. Or watch your favorite movie.

Raymond Obstfeld, in his excellent book, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes, offers this advice on scene length: “Nothing about writing is exact, which is why it’s an art, not a science. Although the best length of a scene depends on its purpose, there’s no rule that any particular purpose should be a specific length. The importance of a scene is not a guide either. Sometimes the most crucial scene in a story may be the shortest to give it the most impact. Therefore, when we discuss length, don’t think of pages; think of attention span. Specifically, “long” is when the reader’s attention span wanders and he either wants to skip ahead or stop reading. “Short” is when the reader feels frustrated because he didn’t experience the scene so much as get a synopsis of events.”

Ian McEwan’s fine novel, On Chesil Beach, presents an interesting case study. The focal point of the novel is a single night: the wedding night of the main character and his new wife. Both are virgins and both are terrified about their lack of sexual experience. The scene plays out over multiple chapters, with flashbacks that describe both characters’ upbringing and their courtship. I haven’t counted the number of scenes in On Chesil Beach, but one single scene played out over the course of the night is the lynchpin of the novel.

My scenes tend to run about 1,500 words, but that’s not a hard-and-fast rule. One crucial scene in my first novel extended over several chapters and ran about 7,500 words. Using the 1,500 word rule, if you take a 90,000 word novel and divide it by 1,500 words, you would need to come up with 60 scenes. So I guess I’m looking at a total of 33.3 scenes for a 50,000 word novel, but there are no rules.

How do you approach scene development? How long is your average scene? And does it matter?

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